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Nerd's Eye View – 'Freak Show' curtain drops disappointment (Feb. 18, 2015 issue)

Part of loving any television show is having it disappoint you. Let’s face it, maintaining the high expectations diehard fans hold for our favorite shows has to be a daunting task for any creative team.
I start this edition of my column saying that in order to cushion what I will be talking about this week: That the most recent installment of FX’s hit show “American Horror Story” (AHS) was by far the most disappointing of the series’ four seasons.
Believe me, it pains me to feel this way. I so wanted to love this season, which was subtitled “Freak Show.” After the third season of AHS ended in early 2014, it was announced that the fourth season of the popular series, which began in October 2015, would be set in a 1950s freak show in Jupiter, Fla.
(For those of you who are not familiar with the concept behind AHS – the show changes its setting, date, storyline and some of the cast each season. For example, the first season was set in a haunted house in modern-day Los Angeles and Jessica Lange played a neighbor to the haunted house who had a deep connection to the it. The second season was set in an insane asylum in Massachusetts in the 1960s. In that season, Lange played a totally different character – the nun who was in charge of the operations of the asylum. The third season was about a coven of witches in modern-day New Orleans. Well-known actresses Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett joined the cast in the third season.)
Now, anyone who knows anything about freak shows and had watched previous seasons of AHS thought that combining that genre with the storytelling of the brains behind AHS would be a television goldmine.
The idea looked good on paper anyway.
As the weeks passed after the announcement of the show’s new theme, fans like myself learned that Lange would be playing the matron of the freak show and that she would be joined by many of our favorite actors from previous seasons. Bates would be playing the freak show’s bearded lady. Bassett would be playing a woman with three breasts.
Sarah Paulson, who had appeared in the show’s first three seasons, would be playing conjoined twins – who share the same body – named Bette and Dot. (Despite my disappointment in “Freak Show” as a whole, I do have to applaud Paulson and the AHS creative team for making Bette and Dot seem so realistic. The effects were seamless and Paulson’s performance as both twins demonstrated why she is one of the most unique talents working in Hollywood today.)
Teaser ads in the weeks leading up to the “Freak Show” premiere were creepy and crazy and all that I have come to expect from an AHS season. These ads, most of which do not feature actors from the cast, help set the tone for the upcoming season. The tone the ads for “Freak Show” set hinted at a season that would be dark and weird and violent. I really anticipated an intense season.
In the days before the show premiered, I told my friends who are also fans of the show that I hoped the season would not include a scary-looking clown. Well, my wish was not granted as the creators unveiled the most frightening clown I have ever seen. His name was “Twisty” and he was a murderous psycho. If you haven’t seen the show and want a good scare, just search online for a photo of Twisty – you’ll see why he is so freaky.
Twisty’s storyline was a significant part of the plot in the first episodes of this season. Who was he? Why was he killing people? These were questions that could have taken an entire season to answer, but instead the creators dispatched the Twisty storyline and moved on to another.
Like with any AHS season, several storylines are taking place at once and the intertwine in several ways. “Freak Show” just had too many storylines to do all of them justice in the number of episodes the season had. So, the storylines were wrapped up in unfulfilling ways, at least from my point of view. Endings were too abrupt and hard to justify.
Thus, “Freak Show” never seemed to find its focus. The first three seasons of AHS did not have this problem. Just when it seemed like the show would be focusing on one main storyline, with all the others revolve around it like planets around the sun, it would end and we would be introduced to another, which would soon end.
I just think the creators had too much material to work with in the time they had. Adding five or six more episodes to this season would have given them time to give fans all we wanted from the show. In the end it was hard to care about some the characters because we hadn’t been given reasons why we should. For example, I won’t tell you which character it is, but in the finale this character, who had been pretty much a horrible human being the entire show, dies and goes to the AHS version of freak show heaven and is reunited with all the members of the freak show she had treated so poorly while they were living. It was an ending I didn’t think she deserved. (In reality, I would never make a statement about who gets to go to heaven and who does not. That is only for God to know. However, in a television show we can make those judgements about characters because it is make believe.)
Several scriptwriters and directors were responsible for crafting where “Freak Show” traveled this season. I understand that the demands of producing a television show of the magnitude of AHS must be daunting, but I have to say that a show like AHS would be best served by having one writer and one director responsible for the entire season. This is a method used in the first season of HBO’s hit show “True Detective.” The cohesiveness of having the same writer and director on board for each episode made “True Detective” seem like an 8-hour movie, instead of a serialized television show.
If you’re going to try to tell a story the size and scope of “Freak Show” I believe you need that consistency; otherwise, it is too easy to get distracted with the possible trips you could take down that crazy rabbit hole.
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My disappointment could be the result of my high expectations for “Freak Show.” Maybe I watched the show for what I thought it should be, instead of enjoying the ride. Maybe I don’t know what it’s like to put together a television show and I should stop complaining.
There are many things about “Freak Show” that I loved. The production value was very good and, as I previously said, the special effects were seamless. The acting was solid, even with all the weird accents that have apparently become part of the show regardless of the season. I even liked some of the musical performances included this season – Jessica Lange singing David Bowie and conjoined twins singing Fiona Apple, what’s not to like? There is no other show on television that will give you that. Plus, you got to see Neil Patrick Harris as an insane amateur magician with a ventriloquist puppet he believed spoke to him.
“Freak Show” also addressed the issue of who is really a freak. Is it someone with a physical deformity? Or, is it something inside? Or, both? The show argued that sometimes it was all three of these or one or a combination. Freaks aren’t just found in freak shows – then and now.
“Freak Show” will reportedly be Lange’s last with the franchise. I hope that is not the case because she is the anchor of the show and has been from the first season. However, if this was her last, I will still tune in for the fifth season – the location of which has not yet been announced.
If you haven’t seen American Horror Story: Freak Show, I would recommend watching the first three seasons before you do. I will say this is not a show for everyone and should only be viewed by adults. It is not a show for kids – at all.
Until next time, have a great week, whether you’re a nerd or not.
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